Why "Trust Your Gut" is Good Advice for Carol Leaman

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” Ask a kid and they’ll tell you they want to become an astronaut, a doctor, a police officer or a rock star. Ask a teenager and it’s a more serious question that requires a bit of thought. But for a 17-year-old Carol Leaman, the answer was clear: she wanted to run companies as a CEO.

September 11, 2019

This article was written and published by Draft Canada, an Accelerator Centre Startup Visa Program client.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Ask a kid and they’ll tell you they want to become an astronaut, a doctor, a police officer or a rock star. Ask a teenager and it’s a more serious question that requires a bit of thought.

But for a 17-year-old Carol Leaman, the answer was clear: she wanted to run companies as a CEO.

35 years ago, that wasn’t exactly a common answer, especially for a young woman. The reaction she heard was something like “Oh, really?” She didn’t have female CEOs in her family, and there weren’t many role models out there.

“Why I knew as young as I did, I don’t know,” she says. “But I did.”

It’s the same spidey-sense that led Leaman to take a chance on a small piece of software that, in 2012, would become Axonify, a training and development platform that takes the long classroom sessions out of corporate learning and gives employees fun, bite-sized and targeted knowledge when they need it most.

“I have a very, very honed sense of intuition. And when something feels good, I pursue that thread,” says the now-CEO. “It’s never led me down the wrong path.” 

Putting learning on the right path

Ask Leaman about the traditional approach to training and development, and she’ll tell you it doesn’t work.

That’s what she calls the one-and-done, one-size-fits-all firehose approach, where trainers unload a lot at once and hope employees remember. And that approach doesn’t get results, she says.

“If [employees have] been successful doing it one way historically, they just stick to that. They don’t, in fact, change the way that they do it. And so all that training, all those memos, all those assets, fall on deaf ears and fall away.”

The result? A lot of waste. Training Magazine, which has benchmarked the industry for 37 years, reported in 2018 that companies spend an average of $986 on training per employee. Never mind the 46.7 lost productive hours from each employee while they’re receiving that training. That’s no small chunk of change, considering total training spend across the U.S. last year was $87.6 billion.

That’s time and money we could be using more effectively, Leaman says.

“It’s not generic learning. It’s what behaviour change can you measure and tie to what we do?”

– Carol Leaman, CEO of Axonify

Axonify solves the problem by flipping tradition on its head. Instead of starting with all the training materials a company needs to produce, they start with the behaviours that company wants to change or the business results they want to see.

“It’s not the kind of generic learning. It’s what behaviour change can you measure and tie to what we do?”

From there, the platform let strainers teach and test employees on an ongoing basis in about three to five minutes a day. Each micro-learning session serves up personalized challenges to bring all employees up to the same level of competency. And there’s gamification to keep employees coming back.

“There is a simplicity to what we do that really is grounded in cognitive science – which isn’t obvious to anybody, but it is – and we encourage the use of gameplay every day, as part of the learning experience,” Leaman says.

Continued use of Axonify boosted on-the-job knowledge scores to 85 per cent.

So far, they’re seeing great results. In a recent study of their customers, Axonify found that continued use boosted on-the-job knowledge scores to 85 per cent, compared with an average 73 per cent when employees first joined the platform. And because each bite’s so small, training only amounts to about five to nine hours spread out between an average 106 sessions each year.

Their customers are seeing change, too. Bloomingdale’s reported a 41 per cent drop in safety claims after training rolled out to 10,000 employees, which saved more than $3 million in one year. BT, a UK-based telecommunications company, was able to answer 8,000 more customer calls in a year while improving satisfaction rates.

From “ugly baby” to beautiful platform

Axonify didn’t look like this at the beginning, though.

In 2011, Leaman was running another startup company called PostRank and providing mentorship to early-stage entrepreneurs on the side. That’s when she took a marketing business run by a husband and wife duo in their late 60s under her wing.

“They had kind of accidentally conceived of a full piece of software from one of their customers,” she said. “It was kind of successful, but they didn’t know what to do with it.”

“It looked like something architected in 1970. It was ugly and actually did not work very well.”

– Carol Leaman

By “successful” she means that customer saved $40 million in one year after using it. But it was pretty rough around the edges.

“It looked like something architected in 1970. It was ugly and actually did not work very well. It was a very basic, which was part of the reason why I was stunned that it was so successful for that one customer,” she remembers.

But her intuition was tapping on her shoulder again.

As she worked with the couple, she saw more and more opportunity – so much so that after she sold PostRank to Google, she went all-in.

“I thought I could make that a company,” she says. “I did a little bit of research on the space, competitive landscape, why that one customer was so successful with it. And I thought, okay, I think I can do this.”

“We did it based on intuition … I didn’t realize we were doing it in a way that was actually rooted in brain science.”

– Carol Leaman

Despite her research, she didn’t know there was real science behind the approach. “I had no idea at the beginning that the way in which we were training people actually was grounded in how to create memory with them. Neither did the original founders,” she says.

“We did it based on intuition,” she says. “I didn’t realize we were doing it in a way that was actually rooted in brain science.”

Leaman brought in a business partner and together they turned that clunky 1970s-style software into what it is today.

Keeping a good thing growing (and going)

Leaman’s rise to her position at Axonify would make her teenaged self proud. But it’s far from her first time at the corporate steering wheel – and she took a few detours to get there.

Take her decision to take accounting in university instead of business, for example.

“I was dating a guy going to the University of Waterloo,” she remembers. “He was in the accounting program, and I wanted to be with him, so I took accounting at Waterloo, and promptly broke up with him.”

For whatever reason – let’s call it intuition again – she decided to stick with the degree, though, earning her Fellow of Chartered Professional Accountants, or FCPA.

“This notion I had of running my own company one day, was kind of lost in the shuffle.”

– Carol Leaman

Her first job was in public accounting, which she stuck with again for a few years – until a client offered her a job at his public company. “He got me into the corporate world,” she remembers, “and then challenged me with a million things that I really had no business doing. But he let me do them and I learned a ton.”

The only downside? “This notion I had of running my own company one day, was kind of lost in the shuffle during all of that,” she says.

But all that changed when the business bought an early-stage virtual reality startup called FakeSpace. A couple of years later, Leaman became the new CEO of that startup. “As soon as that happened, there was this ‘Aha!’ moment I had. It was this instant realization: oh, this is what I’m supposed to do,” she says.

From there, she headed the ranks at PostRank – and the rest is history.

“There was this ‘Aha!’ moment I had. It was this instant realization: oh, this is what I’m supposed to do.”

– Carol Leaman

So what’s Leaman’s next intuition for Axonify? Keeping a good thing going – and growing.

“We’re just heads-down trying to grow the business,” she says. “We’re hiring, working and growing, and just trying todo all the right things.”

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